As work on expansion of the Panama Canal reaches the halfway point and the maritime industry increasingly shifts to super-sized ships too large for many U.S. ports, experts said Wednesday that the United States is falling behind on making improvements critical to keeping it competitive in global commerce.
“We rank 32nd in the world in our infrastructure investments — just behind Greece. It’s an embarrassment.’’ said John Vickerman, president of Vickerman & Associates, a Virginia-based firm that provides port master planning and design.
The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave America’s infrastructure — its ports, airports, transit and rail systems, bridges, and roads — a grade of D+. Ports earned a C, or mediocre.
Meanwhile, Asia has been investing heavily in massive ports with the latest automated technology.
Vickerman said the 10 busiest ports in the world are all in Asia; Shanghai and Singapore taken together are larger than all the ports in North America combined.
He spoke at the Port & Intermodal Finance & Investment Summit, a three-day meeting at the Hyatt Regency Miami where some 50 port directors, consultants, bankers, and representatives from maritime-related firms have gathered.
For ports across the United States, the super-sized container ships that have begun to ply the world’s waterways represent more jobs and a way to increase revenue.
Some 43 percent of the container ships now on order fall into the Post-Panamax category, meaning they are too large to fit through the locks of the current Panama Canal, said John Martin, president of Martin Associates, which has conducted more than 800 economic-planning studies for ports.
The canal’s $5.25 billion expansion project is expected to be completed by mid-2015.
But the Post-Panamax ships also require deeper harbors, bigger cranes, and other port improvements in the United States — changes that will cost billions of dollars.
Rivaling U.S. cities are ports in the Caribbean, Central America, and Panama. All seek to become major trans-shipment centers where cargo from post-Panamax vessels is broken down and loaded on to smaller feeder ships.
“That is becoming the major competition for East Coast ports,” said Martin. “In order to compete against this, we need to have investment in U.S. ports.”
Paul Anderson, chief executive officer of the Tampa Port Authority, said there are major challenges in getting the U.S. to fund port projects and that increasingly the money will need to come from public/private partnerships.
“We are reacting at this point and we are reacting very slowly,’’ he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is now on its 13th year of study for a small, channel-deepening project in Tampa, Anderson said.
Other port directors also complained of lengthy delays to get Army Corps approval for harbor-deepening projects and the dearth of federal funding for port projects.
Between now and 2017, some $46 billion is expected to be spent on port-capital expenditures with some $27.6 billion coming from private sources, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Port Authorities.
Federal funding became even scarcer after 9/11, because money was shifted from infrastructure and maintenance projects to beefing up port security, said Martin.
Currently, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., are the only East Coast ports ready to handle fully loaded post-Panamax ships.
Miami has funding and approvals in place to dredge its channel to a depth of 50-52 feet. The project is expected to get underway this summer and be completed more or less simultaneously with the opening of the expanded canal. New York must raise the deck of the Bayonne Bridge so the big ships can fit underneath.
But other East Coast ports are even further behind and still await completion of Army Corps studies or funding
Miami got a boost when Florida Gov. Rick Scott offered $77 million in state funds so the dredging project could go ahead without waiting for federal money. One of the arguments that PortMiami used to convince the governor of the economic benefits to Florida was that 65 percent of Asian imports consumed in Florida come overland into the state after arriving at ports outside Florida.